Every Record I Own - Day 287: Daughters Hell Songs
Very few “heavy” bands truly live up to the misanthropy they project through their music. But Daughters were different. Over the course of a U.S. tour together, I got to know the guys in the band pretty well, and they were a rare instance where their personalities were as fucked up as their music. Don’t get me wrong—they were all great people. But there was something inherently damaged in their chemistry. They were barely functional as a unit, but that made their music seem all the more dangerous.
A year or two after that tour, Continuum Books announced open submissions for their 33 1/3 book series, wherein authors analyze classic albums and assess their cultural impact. I knew I didn’t stand a chance, but I pitched a book on Hell Songs. My thesis was pretty basic: heavy music is typically just theater, but Daughters was real life drama, and that made their music that much more intense. As per their submission guidelines, I wrote an opening chapter. The pitch was rejected, but I wound up posting the chapter online, where it caught the attention of Robotic Empire, the label that put out Daughters’ debut LP. They offered to print the book. And so for the next year-and-a-half I dedicated all my spare time to questioning the individual band members, chasing down old tour mates, stitching together the chronology of their history, reading old interviews, and writing the damn thing. I submitted a first draft to the band and waited two weeks to hear back from them.
They eventually asked to cancel the project. There were disagreements within their camp as to how shit actually went down. And, understandably, there were a lot of grimy details that they weren’t too excited to share publicly. It was disappointing, but understandable. I figured a certain amount of rejection is inevitable as a writer, and this one at least had a valid excuse, so there wasn’t much of a sting.
Anyhow, I’ve posted the first chapter after the jump. The writing seems a little corny now, so maybe I ultimately dodged a bullet.
“Yeah, I’ve been called a sinner…”
And so begins Daughter’s 2006 sophomore album Hell Songs–with a declaration of degradation. Vocalist Alexis S.F. Marshall, or Lex for short, wears the insult proudly, announcing it with the kind of defiant pride of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter. And then a cascade of noise descends upon the final syllable. The song, “Daughters Spelled Wrong”, is one minute and 42 seconds of Lex’s self-flagellations delivered in a slurred Southern Baptist preacher’s drawl. In that short parcel of time, Lex lists off every slanderous label he’s endured.
As the front man for Daughters, Lex was the human element to the band. And while his performance on Hell Songsis unnerving enough in its own right, his tirades became exponentially more menacing live. With his stringy waist-long hair, his tall and gangly frame, his wiry handle-bar mustache, his hopelessly tattered black pants (apparently his only pair), and his ill-fitting stained white dress shirt, he gave off an aura of someone who didn’t give a fuck about the pageantry of rock music. He wasn’t even fashionably unfashionable. Grooming, hygiene, and composure were neglected. He looked disheveled, poverty-stricken, strung out. Most Daughters sets found Lex in less attire, usually just a pair of briefs. Far from the display of muscle and machismo seen in chiseled frontmen like Henry Rollins, Anthony Kiedis, and Chris Cornell, there was nothing erotic about near-nude Lex. Sexual? Certainly, but only in the most degrading, animalistic sense of the word. Lex’s stage presence only served to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible. He would claw red lines into his belly, cram his entire fist into his mouth, fellate the microphone, and drool on himself while fondling his genitals. In moments where audience members chose to interact with him on stage, the results were equally filthy. People vied for his spit. Women pulled at his briefs. Fans fondled and licked his exposed cock. A confessed “sex addict”, Lex would swap spit with both men and women mid-set and fuck fans in venue bathrooms. His tally of sexual conquests was startling, given his disturbing stage behavior and lack of sociability. Claiming a bad acid trip as the root of his social anxiety, Lex was nearly bipolar in his daily interactions. He was relatively friendly and talkative one moment, withdrawn and angry the next. A ninth-grade drop out and former homeless teenager, his bleak world-view was legitimate.
“…worker of iniquities…”
There’s no verse. No chorus. No rhyming scheme. No melody. It’s just one musical phrase repeating for the entire duration of the song. The instrumental accompaniment sounds like a broken machine filtered through the ears of someone simultaneously shuddering through a panic attack and immersed in vertigo. The sound underneath Lex’s litany is a study in all things wrong and counter-intuitive. The band—comprised of entirely capable and talented players—sounds like they’re deliberately unlearning their instruments. Cymbals crash without a kick drum to punctuate them. The bass guitar dives and climbs with little regard for actual notes. One guitar avoids the lower octaves completely and opts instead for atonal high-end screeching and skronky discord. The other guitar remains stuck on one warbled, seasick riff through the whole song, sounding off-balance and broken even when the whole band locks in around it. It’s confounding, ugly music.
“…transgressor, bad example, scoundrel, villain, knave…”
The annals of rock music have no shortage of bands showcasing the darker side of human nature. Ever since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, ever since Jerry Lee Lewis set his piano on fire, ever since Iggy Pop rolled in broken glass, there has existed a certain sector of the rock community dedicated to exorcising its demons on stage. It’s the reason that concerned parents and church groups still argue that rock music is evil. This flagrant display of bad behavior, self-destruction, and reckless abandon is at the very root of rock music. And perpetuating rock’s legacy of danger requires raising the bar of rebellion. As rock music nears the age of retirement, its old tricks no longer impress young audiences. Chuck Berry and Little Richard carry none of the threat they did in their heyday. KISS terrified puritanical parents with the widespread rumors of their name serving as an acronym for Kids In Satan’s Service, but now they seem downright Christian in comparison to the blasphemous content of black metal bands like Gorgoroth. So prevalent is the anti-social contingent of music in today’s market that it’s hardly noteworthy for a band to parade its malice for an audience. The harder edged realms of rock music—metal and punk, for example—depend on that kind of antagonism. Daughters looked for one of those last few buttons to push, one of those last few taboos to break, one the last few ways to make people cringe. Perry Farrell noted well over two decades ago “nothing’s shocking.” Daughters challenged that statement.
“…miscreant, viper, wretch, the devil incarnate…”
It takes a certain brand of individuals to make nihilism translate into music, and it requires their contempt to be believable. Words like “genuine”, “sincerity”, and “honesty” get thrown around by critics and fans as signifiers of good music. How do those qualities apply to antagonistic musicians? Do the artists have to be genuinely miserable people to make convincingly ugly music? The artists who are typically the most successful at channeling this kind of dark art manage to convey that wrath and misery in both content and form. It’s not just a matter of singing about the pasty underbelly of the human psyche or throwing a few skulls on an album cover; it’s about the thoroughness of pessimism. It’s about creating a genuine sense of danger. And it requires a misanthropic honesty that carries itself both on and off-stage. It used to be that the entirety of the public’s perception of an artist stemmed from image they set forth on stage and on record. In the age of the internet, this is no longer the case. Even more so for a band of Daughter’s stature—a band that rarely had a backstage to slink off to, a band that still had to unload their own gear off stage, a band that still had to run back to the merch booth after their set to sling t-shirts for gas money, a band with no place to hide and sustain a fabricated mystique.
“…monster, demon, fallen angel, murderer, and thief…”
The Catch-22 is that being in a successful band—a band that can write music together, play shows, tour, record, maybe even make a little money—requires unity, solidarity, positivity, compromise, and sociability. In other words, a band that’s genuinely driven by angst and hostility is doomed for failure. Proof of the unsustainable nature of these kinds of acts is most evident in the dearth of popular nihilistic bands. Even the somewhat well-known misery peddlers tend to be tragically stunted. Notorious shock rock icon GG Allin made a career out of anti-social behavior and bilious lyrical themes. He was known to take the stage naked, ready to fight the audience and fling his feces at the crowd. He wrote songs with titles like “Last In Line For The Gang Bang” and “Fuckin’ The Dog”. He famously promised to kill himself on stage, which would have been the ultimate display of the self-destructive nature of negative music, but a heroin overdose beat him to it. Glen Benton, the vocalist and bassist for seminal death metal band Deicide similarly promised to off himself at the age of 33 as a mockery of Jesus Christ’s year of death. Benton failed to live up to his word. And while he will always be remembered for the controversy he created in his early career by branding an inverted cross into his forehead and advocating animal sacrifice, he tempered out in his later years when he became a family man with a wife and kids. Not surprisingly, the quality of Deicide’s albums declined, as did their album sales. Allin went too close to the edge and fell into the abyss. Benton mellowed out. Neither managed to sustain the malice of their classic records over a protracted career. Daughter’s brand of ugliness had none of Allin’s overt misogyny and violence, none of Deicide’s Christian-baiting Satanism. Instead, they specialized in a kind of implied depravity. Lex wouldn’t attack the venue patrons, but he’d do everything else in his power to make the audience take a squeamish step back. Even though their album title references Hell, there was no trumpeting of a contrarian religion in their lyrics, no acknowledgement of moral consequence. Instead, Lex sang about emotional voids. It somehow made Lex scarier than GG or Glen. He seemed smarter. Colder. Less confrontational, but also less vested in cheap stunts and outlandish behavior for the sake of winning over anyone’s approval. He wasn’t interested in violence. He was interested in degrading himself on stage, forcing the audience into an unnerving kind of voyeurism.
“…lost sheep, black sheep, black guard, loafer, and sneak…”
Even the millionaire “bad boys of rock”—artists like Alice Cooper, Guns N’ Roses, and Motley Crue—aren’t exempt from the imbalance of nihilism and authenticity. For one thing, these cultural giants never tread so far into the blackness that you feared them as people. Their worst crimes were their hedonistic appetites. They still came across as people that would be fun to party with. Marilyn Manson managed to up the ante of anti-social behavior in the ‘90s, but the controversy was calculated. Manson always knew how to articulate his more vitriolic statements in a calm, well-spoken, intellectual manner. It was obviously theater. Daughters didn’t come across as the life of the party. They didn’t come across as having any sort of deeper, thoughtful meaning to their art. They came across as genuinely bitter, crass, resentful individuals.
“…good-for-nothing ass-fucking son of a bitch.”
Daughters were a band that tried to find that balance between thorough, real ugliness and some kind of self-sustaining functionality. They wanted to be successful; they wanted to tour the world and make money. But they also wanted to make something truly hideous and uncomfortable. Their debut album, Canada Songs, was an 11-minute surge of hyper-paced noise-driven hardcore. Occupying the kind of punk/metal hybrid territory instigated by bands like The Locust and Dillinger Escape Plan, Daughters found an immediate audience among fans of frenzied, technical music. It was well-received, but not entirely unconventional for that particular style. But Hell Songs was different. The band ditched their lightning-speed tempos, metal-steeped instrumentation, and shrieking, indecipherable vocals for disjointed mid-tempo lurches and Lex’s drunken oratory. They weeded their old material out of their performances. The fans felt betrayed. They had gone from sounding like the arty descendents of the powerviolence and grindcore scenes into a tightly wound meth-fed version of The Birthday Party. There was a much stronger adversarial vibe to their new approach. Their sound was less tethered to any particular scene. It alienated a fan base that was already built on embracing disenfranchisement and being at odds with everything.
But deservedly, the record found an audience, albeit a small one. For as caustic and abrasive of an album as it is, there’s a surprising catchiness to the material. The low end groans; the high end piercingly buzzes like a swarm of insects; the drums flit from spasms of hyperkinetic pulverizations to deconstructed thuds and clatter; and Lex moans and howls over all of it. Yet somehow, Hell Songs is rife with hooks. There was a discipline to what they did. It could’ve easily devolved into white noise, but there was always a clarity and separation to the instruments. They were a tight band. And for the three years that followed the release of Hell Songs before the group imploded, Daughters came about as close as any band can get to being a total train wreck without rattling apart at the seams. There was fighting, a rotating cast of guitar players, drugs, infidelities, van accidents, hospital trips, lost money, rivalries with tourmates, promoters pulling guns on the band, and an never-ending list of lewd stage behavior. They were a fascinating, glorious mess, and they perfectly captured it over the course of ten songs.
“I’ve been called a sinner.”